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The Arbiter of Sanity

In his cold, claustrophobic world, joy is not threatened. It does not exist. CP Surendran on why we need more — and less — of Adoor Gopalakrishnan

ADoor gopalakrishnan’s movies, black and white and barren, cold and claustrophobic, are sustained forays into the ever-tenebrous mind of the individual at odds with himself and the world.

Often, the protagonist, even if he is a seemingly ideologically rooted political leader as in the case of Sreedharan in Mukhamukham, is not equipped to understand the nature of the incompleteness of his being, the shifting chiaroscuro play of his mind in relation to himself and to society at large. Or if he rarely does, as with the on-the run-Patelar in Vidheyan, he is unable to communicate it to others or do much about it. Adoor’s world — given, never made— is largely apathetic to individual overtures.

Against its formal — and infrequently volatile — indifference, the protagonist, rebel or leader, villain or village idiot, exhausted, sits or lies down on a thin mat on a cold floor and stares at the wall, will-less, and therefore bereft of a choice. Being as Nothingness. It’s an Adoor brand of angst and existentialism has no answer for it.

Adoor has systematically fought the technicolor ground cluttered with tinsel-trees and boats shaped like swans, and pitched a bare tent for himself. And there he stays still, decades after his first shot
It’s a cruel, insufferable world that Adoor mediates. To that extent, it’s autobiographical. His insecure childhood and penurious family circumstances have clearly shaped the artist in him. The nine films he’s made, starting with the disturbing Swayamvaram and the recent Nizalkuth which is about an executioner with pronounced Gandhiyan proclivities, are all various takes of the same Fate in action on a kindred people. People who are powerless to change their lives.

A deliberately slow pace of scenes and the Grand Narrative of the Somnolence of Spirit all point up the temporal crisis of his characters, a bunch of half-men going through the motions of a search for future, a simulacrum of shadows, partaking in the parody of a Promise.

Unlike a Bergman or a Tarkovsky whose plots thicken darkly towards the cathartic release of a tragedy as in The Seventh Seal or Sacrifice, Adoor underplays the diminutive descent of his people into their own peculiar, loveless hell: their lives just do not matter. Nothing does.

Why, I ask myself, a little baffled. Because in Adoor’s auteur-world happiness, even frisson, are unreal categories of feeling. It’s not as if their existence is in danger. They just don’t exist. It does not console me that this is both Adoor’s strength and weakness. As an artist he cannot believe the traumatised truth of his vision can be realised once he accepts such positive states of mind. This is a truly frightened man. Almost as terrified as I am.

Yet to make a practice of his paranoia in the 70s when he began working as a filmmaker requires huge strength of character. This was the time when Malayalam cinema in particular, and Indian cinema in general, was in the grip of the masala formula. In Kerala a hundred gaudy historicals reigned. Heroes with oiled wigs and horses, heroines with mile-long mammary glands and magical cardboard swords ruled. Great lone efforts like Ramu Karriyat’s Chemmeen and MT Vasusdevan Nair’s Nirmallyam flashed briefly before Adoor swung into faint view.

Since then, more than Aravindan or KG George, considerable filmmakers themselves, Adoor has systematically fought and cleared the technicolor ground cluttered with tinsel–trees and boats shaped like swans, and pitched a bare tent for himself. And there he stays still, a king of his own dark kaleidoscopic survey, decades after his first shot. And the camera is still rolling. The lights are still shining. That is something, I would think, if only because he provides a frame of reference to judge the orchestrated insanity of the mainstream multi-million mush. Gopalakrishnan? Ah, yes and yes. We need more of him. And a little less as well.

The writer is a poet and journalist

Sep 24 , 2005

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